This Is a Blog: Elections in Brief: Non-Incumbent Elections & Hillary Clinton

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Elections in Brief: Non-Incumbent Elections & Hillary Clinton

The election of 2016 is unprecedented, and not just because Hillary Clinton is the first woman to be a major party's candidate. If she wins, she will have accomplished something no Democrat has done since 1856. Let me explain.

Since 1788, we have held 56 elections (2016 will be 57). Of those 56, 24 have not included an incumbent president as a candidate, like this go-round. Before 1828, the whole electoral system was very different. That all changed in 1828 when the Democrats won the White House for the first time, so for the purposes of this exercise, we will start there and just lob off the first ten elections. That's 46 elections, 20 of which did not include an incumbent.

Of those 20, Democrats have only won 7, and of those 7, only 2 follow a Democrat president.

 Following a Democrat President
 Year  President Followed By 
 1836  Jackson Van Buren
 1848 Polk Taylor
 1856 Pierce Buchanan
 1860 Buchanan Lincoln
 1868 A. Johnson (VP)  Grant
 1896 Cleveland McKinley
 1920 Wilson Harding
 1952 Truman Eisenhower
 1968 L. Johnson Nixon
 2000 B. Clinton W. Bush
 Following a Republican President
 Year  President Followed By 
 1844  Tyler (VP) Polk
 1852 Fillmore (VP)  Pierce
 1876 Grant Hayes
 1880 Hayes Garfield
 1884 Arthur (VP) Cleveland
 1908 T. Roosevelt Taft
 1928 Coolidge Hoover
 1960 Eisenhower Kennedy
 1988 Reagan H.W. Bush
 2008 W. Bush Obama

*I'm lumping Republicans and Whigs together because my focus is the Democrats, so for the purpose of this exercise, they're functionally the same (and when I say Republican from here on in, I mean Whig or Republican, unless clearly stated).

*(VP) means a Vice President who ascended to the presidency but was never re-elected in his own right

*Bold means the president is generally considered by historians to be successful.

So let's look at those seven Democrats: Van Buren, Polk, Pierce, Buchanan, Cleveland, Kennedy, and Obama. Three of those (Polk, Pierce, and Cleveland), came off terrible Vice Presidents who ascended to the presidency and sucked, failing to win re-nomination, and totally ruining their party's chance of re-election. In 1856, the wildly unpopular Buchanan won because the Whig party had just split over slavery. That leaves only 3 (Van Buren, Kennedy, and Obama) who won without some total catastrophe on the Right. Hell, only 2 if you count George W. Bush as a catastrophe on the Right. Either way, in a Right-side catastrophe-free year, a Democrat has only followed another Democrat ONCE!

Whoa, What's Up With Democrats?

If Hillary wins in November, she will only be the third non-incumbent Democrat to follow another Democrat. I can't say this enough times, it hasn't happened since 1856. Taking the circumstances on the Right in 1856 into account, a Democrat has not followed a Democrat on basis of strength and popularity (absent of death) since Van Buren in 1836, and he was a sitting Vice President.

It's hard to imagine the history of some of these elections given the current political climate. Amazingly, we're the most politically stable we've been since the Era of Good Feelings. This is the longest we have gone since 1840 without a death or resignation in the White House, 1974 to now, 32 years. Ending at 1960, the president elected every 20 years has died in office: Harrison 1840, Lincoln 1860, Garfield 1880, McKinley 1900, Harding 1920, Roosevelt 1940, and Kennedy 1960. That kind of instability can turn elections one way or another. There are other issues at play here as well . We can't treat Civil War Democrats the same as modern Democrats. Some of these results are about scandals or that 28-year stretch where no Democrat was elected President at all. But some of these patterns are hard to ignore.

Unlike Democrats, it would seem, Republicans in non-incumbent races can win coming off any situation. Obviously, popular Republicans begat more Republicans: Grant begat Hayes, Teddy Roosevelt begat Taft, Coolidge begat Hoover, Reagan begat H.W. Bush.

It would stand to reason successful Democrats could do the same. After Polk expanded the west and won the Mexican-American War, his successor lost. After Wilson established the Federal Reserve and the League of Nations, and shepherded through the popular election of Senators and Women's Suffrage, his successor lost. After Truman proudly carried the FDR torch into a full term of his own, his successor lost. After the one-two punch of Kennedy/Johnson, liberal idealism mixed with political acumen, the New Frontier and the Great Society, Nixon won. In fact, only one wildly popular, progressive, revolutionary Democrat was able to parlay his success into a direct successor, and that was Andrew Jackson, the guy they built the entire Democratic Party around.

Without an incumbent in play, Republicans can win no matter who is in the White House. At the end of a successful Republican term, the country is hungry for another Republican, yet at the end of a successful Democratic term, the country is also hungry for a Republican. It would seem to take a miracle to elect a Democrat in the same situation. Presidents need to die or whole political parties collapse.

A step beyond, who do you think are the worst 5 presidents? If you're like me, you'd answer Warren Harding, George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan. Guess what? Four out of five of them were elected in a non-incumbent election, following a Democratic president (the fifth was Lincoln's VP and never elected at all). Wilson begat Harding. Clinton begat W. Bush. Kennedy/Johnson begat Nixon. It seems to me after eight years of Democrats, the country snaps the rubber band back.

What Does This Mean For Hillary?

So what can Democrats do to win after a Democrat? First off, don't say Trump doesn't have a shot. I didn't think George W. Bush had a shot. Following a Republican, the key to success would seem to be an exciting idealist like Kennedy or Obama, but that failed with Samuel Tilden (1876), William Jennings Bryan (1908), and Al Smith (1928).

Following a Democrat, perhaps the mistake is going with safe candidates like Hubert Humphrey, Al Gore, or Adlai Stevenson (or as some would say, Hillary Clinton). In 1896, the Democrats put up the most fiery politician maybe ever, William Jennings Bryan, and he couldn't follow a Democrat. James Cox (1920) was pretty progressive, and he couldn't do it. Arguably, blander candidates, like Humphrey and Gore, are more vulnerable to third party candidate interference.

It would seem the hardest time to elect a Democrat is after the Civil War and when a Democrat is in the White House. Honestly, this is one my biggest reasons for supporting Hillary in the primary. I feel like the country is scared of progress. When a Republican is in office, Democrats can stand for hope and change, but when a Democrat is in office, the next Democrat has to answer for all the imperfections that come with that hope and change. It may not look good on a poster, but promising to fix the holes in Obama's imperfect programs, like the Affordable Care Act, may be the best way to win the White House and keep it for the Democrats.

If the country's natural inclination is to backslide after progress, maybe the answer is showing them some Democrats want to steadily move left, not jump there full steam ahead. Then four to eight years -- and maybe three Supreme Court justices -- later, the next Progressive hero can emerge to say she didn't go far enough. I know incremental change can be frustrating, but I feel like it's the only way to change the paradigm and keep Democrats in office.

But it also scares the hell out of me because this pattern means she could lose. Oh God, she could actually lose.

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